While watching 60 minutes tonight, all I could do was stare at the screen with my jaw wide open. Bush threw a wrench in the works of an active anti-terrorist program and pursued anti-terror intelligence like a true-believer conducts a psychic investigation. Conclusions before facts; look for corroborating evidence; keep pounding.
There is no way to tell whether 9/11 could have been averted. If I’d have to guess, I’d guess no, but that’s partly because i don’t want to lean too heavily on the incompetence of our president or appear to take blame away from the terrorists themselves. But, as Clarke puts it, “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Let’s look at what he said tonight that shocked me the most.
First, let me explain who Richard Clarke is. He worked with Reagan to shape anti-terror policies and later worked with the first President Bush. He was kept by the Clinton administration to become terrorism czar for the nation. Then again he worked for another President Bush when GWB took the White House. Hired by a Republican president, worked for 3 GOP heads of state and Clinton. Ok, onward.
After 9/11, Bush took Richard Clarke aside to ask him for a report on Iraq and possible links to al Qaeda. Clarke describes his manner as “intimidating” on his insistence that this connection should be explored. Trouble is, it had been explored for years and there was no evidence. Bush was informed of this.
There had been no Iraqi terrorism since the Bush I assassination attempt when they blew up Iraqi intelligence as a warning—a warning which killed Iraqi terrorism in its tracks.
Richard Clark agreed to produce yet another investigation which turned up no linking evidence, the report was returned with the message “Wrong Answer.” The efforts of years of intelligence had produced the wrong answer—no link to support what the Bush administration wanted to do. (The actual words on the memo, it turns out, were about reworking and resubmitting the report. It was a report based on years of research that had turned up nothing.)
Immediately following 9/11, Rumsfeld was suggesting we bomb Iraq. The CIA, FBI and Clarke were telling him that al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld told them “Afghanistan doesn’t have any good targets. Iraq has good targets.”
Clarke describes that a lot of effort went into stopping what he calls “the al Qaeda attack” during the Clinton years.
There were meetings every other day, or every few days with the president. They thwarted attacks such as a plot to blow up LAX. He had proposed a plan to Clinton to kill Osama, but that plan was turned down.
By contrast, when Bush took office, the meetings with the president stopped. Requests for meetings went unanswered. Warnings went unanswered. Information stopped. Information about the known al Qaeda cells didn’t make it to Clarke. He finally got one meeting before 9/11 on the 4th of September, 2001. He presented the plan to kill Osama, but was rebuffed again. We all know what followed.
What strikes me the most is how when Bush took office, they really did put terrorism on the back burner. This shouldn’t surprise us at all, since they gave al Qaeda a breather during the post 9/11 war on terror by waging a separate war on Iraq. The administration’s response is just to say that the suggestion Bush was not hard-hitting on the Taliban and Afghanistan is absurd. It completely glosses over the accusations.
Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Counsel, is unconvincing in his answer to Clarke’s charges. At times, Hadley oversteps the facts. He claims there is no proof of any encounter between Clarke and the president regarding an Iraq report, then stumbles as Lesley Stahl mentions they have independent corroboration of the encounter, including one witness to it. Later, when Hadley intimates that Clarke told him he was happy with Bush’s handling of terrorism when he left his job, Stahl asks him if that’s what Clarke told him. He had to back up again and say it is what he “understood.”
Al Qaeda attacks were thwarted during the Clinton administration. That’s not to say Clinton was the end all and be all of anti-terror. But he had a terrorism czar who was included in cabinet-level meetings—frequently. For whatever reason he was reduced in involvement and his warnings were ignored. After 9/11 he was reduced to the job of fetching information to link Saddam and al Qaeda. As Bush said, “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.”
This is huge.
“Are we safer with Saddam out of power?” is yesterday’s question.
Today’s question is “Are we safer with Bush out of power.”
[Addendum: Watch the fun as the conservative attack dogs work to discredit Clarke. This fellow came across as honest, credible, and sincerely concerned about the American people. What more do you want in a terrorism czar? In fact, he resembled an older Jack Bristow from Alias. A no-nonsense guy. Regardless, the attacks are, no doubt, already forming.]